I consider there to be three stages of personal development on the way to fulfilling your athletic potential. All athletes experience these, no matter whether they are a pro, middle or back-of-the-pack. Athletic development is relative.
Stage One Primary goal is event completion. Participation and finishing the event brings joy and accomplishment. Just being there is super cool. This is a low pressure situation as the goals are “turnstile” goals – meaning you just have to do them to “win”.
Stage Two Now the challenge of being there and finishing is completed, the next logical goal is to become a little better. To continue development you must improve. Goals become performance based. Focus is on better times and better placing. Now the pressure is on. Each race must show improvement to validate the time/money/energy put into the sport and to give value to the increased effort stage 2 takes over stage 1. You will now perceive yourself as an athlete and have athlete friends you must perform for.
Some athletes have a very short stage two or skip it entirely. Some athletes never get out of stage two and never truly reach their athletic potential. The athletes who are stuck in stage two usually perform magnificently in training and choke on race day. They do not cope well with the pressure they have put upon themselves. Racing loses its joy.
Stage Three This is where an athlete can “transcend” and allow performance to reach the top of its true potential. Stage Three combines the pure joy of Stage One with the performance drive of Stage Two. These two things together produce “flow”.
The Dalai Lama says “the purpose of life is to seek happiness and that the very motion of our life is toward happiness”.
In Stage Three the ultimate goal above and beyond any other is happiness. When you are truly happy and released from external expectations you can truly perform without any binds holding you back.
Athletes who reach Stage Three excel. Happiness consists of going really fast, executing a perfect race, performing relaxed, pushing to the limits and winning.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Finding Flow” discusses the difference between joy and pleasure. True joy takes a lot of hard work, sweat and sometimes tears to reach. Pleasure is passive, like watching TV. Value in life is to pursue true joy and not be distracted by pleasures. Training for mountain bike racing is an exact analogy of this. You forsake ice cream and TV time (pleasures) to train for race performance (joy). This is what you do in Stage Three – pursue joy. Pressure and expectations are not conducive to joy on race day or leading up to it.
“The best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is something that we make happen. Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur, yet these could have been the best moments of life. Getting control is never easy and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
I rode my mountain bike 100 miles yesterday. It took me 8 hours and 36 minutes. Let me tell you I had a few moments where it was not pleasurable at all, but dam I enjoyed that ride!
What are your goals this season?